“She made a scene”
Months and month ago I fell into writing a fairy tale of sorts. That happy accident has evolved into a little side project I’ve simply been calling “Origins.” I have a handful of stories in various states of completion. The following is a draft of one of those stories.
Everyone knows it’s little people inside computers that make them work. They are incredibly tiny and oh so busy and always working at super speeds to do their jobs. Meeting the little people inside any given computer is really quite difficult.
Despite the incredibly fast-paced life inside a computer, the little people within it are really quite chatty. They talk mostly as part of doing their jobs, but they also love to tell stories when they’re not working. If you listen really closely, sometimes you can hear their tales.
The first computers were big machines that filled entire rooms. Though quite slow compared to present day computers, they still they ran important programs. The computers of today look far different than these machines. And the reason computers now look so different is in large part because of a signal named Pix.
Inside a computer there are components and there are signals. Components are the pieces and parts and doodads and whatsits that have fancy names like “transistor” and “processor” and “RAM.” Signals have names too, but they can’t be seen. They’re especially tiny and especially fast and made of invisible stuff like electrons.
Components get all the attention. Talking about computers is often all about how much memory there is and how fast the processor goes. Nobody much cares about the signals racing in and around the components. So signals generally like to be near the action doing important things. They want to refresh the memory or to race from a keyboard to tell the other components when a user has pressed a key.
Circuit boards inside a computer are the cities and neighborhoods of signals and components. Just like houses and apartments, components stay put and have addresses. And traces on circuit boards are the roads that connect everything together. But unlike the roads cars drive on, traces always form big loops to allow signals to return to their source. Those loops are called circuits. A super fast central clock helps everyone work together. It simply cycles endlessly and works more like a giant traffic signal than something to tell time.
Signals have been doing their jobs for millions and millions and millions of cycles without ever being seen. They take pride in doing their jobs without drawing much attention to themselves. You see, there simply is little place for signals who are show-offs.
Now Pix was a little different than the other signals. She was never quite content to only zap between components back and forth along the same traces all day. She wanted to… well, do something else, something new. Signals tended to be very practical. Pix, however, had a bit of flare and almost no way to express it.
Signals followed traces on circuit boards all day long. Always forward. Always straight lines. They knew nothing else. But Pix had developed a talent of a sort. After lots and lots of effort she had learned how to twirl. Twirling didn’t really do much, of course. It mainly just tickled components and irritated stodgy signals a bit.
Every so often, Pix would do her little twirl and put a zig in her zap. She always got where she was going right on time, and it never caused any trouble for the running program. Of course, the other signals were all quite satisfied to follow tradition and did not approve of Pix’s sprightly little moves at all. Pix tried as best as she could to ignore the disapproving static.
An incredible number of components and signals live in a computer. The number is so big that not all of them are busy working all the time. Sometimes they just have nothing to do. What feels like a long time inside a computer is hardly a split second in the outside world. When idle time comes most signals are content to simply run back and forth to make sure everything is just as they last left it.
Pix was not most signals. She liked to use her idle cycles to go exploring. She would bounce from component to component, often making small talk as she zipped through. But what Pix especially loved was when she found connections that left the computer. Connections are like tunnels from inside the computer to the outside world.
Connections often lead to other circuit boards full of more components. These are called peripherals. Adventurous Pix was never happier than when she found new connections and peripherals to explore.
In Pix’s time, computers weren’t all that different than other cabinets full of circuit boards. Back then computers were way too big to fit in pockets and nobody had them in their house. Usually computers lived in special rooms in special buildings. While really new ideas were being figured out, sometimes the computers were barely even assembled. Pieces and parts would be sprawled out on desks and on lab benches with lots of wires and complicated tools attached.
And so it was one day that Pix found a new connection and raced to go exploring during some idle cycles. Only the most peculiar thing happened. Somehow she spilled right out of a wire and slid across the sheet of glass that topped a big gray metal desk. Most other signals would have met their end right there. But not Pix. She knew how to zig. Before she could even think she did a lightning quick twirl to zip back inside her computer — before she came apart across the glass and disappeared forever.
Pix was pulsing frantically once safely inside the connection again. She had been so anxious to get back to her computer as fast as possible that she hardly noticed the wondrous sight behind her. When she had twirled, instead of upsetting other signals or tickling components, a tiny momentary burst of light flickered against that piece of glass.
Given the fright she had experienced, Pix was not exactly eager to race down that ill-fated connection again any time soon. But the possibilities of that little flash of light just captured her imagination. Soon enough Pix was spending idle cycles spilling out of the same connection that nearly terminated her and skating around that piece of glass. Each trip was an experiment of more and more twirls. In time Pix could even trace out designs and draw out almost any set of instructions she could imagine — all in tiny points of light.
As Pix was so rarely visiting component friends in her idle cycles, rumors spread. It didn’t take long for her secret to be uncovered. What she could do was so astounding that even the stuffiest of signals were impressed. For the first time, the otherwise invisible insides of a computer could create visible images.
Later, signals and components worked together to produce color images and adopt the grid of picture elements standard on today’s display screens. Computer books will tell you that “pixel” comes from the phrase “picture element.” To a degree this is accurate. But the truer story is that the momentary points of light created with a computer were named in honor of the signal that first danced on glass to create them. Though everyone knew her simply as Pix, her full name was Pixelle.